On this day in September 1841

From the Port Phillip Herald 24th September 1841


On Wednesday, one of the scenes which occur so frequently in this town and which tends to exemplify so strongly the dogma frequently advanced, that a great portion of the Emigrants landed on these shores are immoral, was to be witnessed in King street.  A female of rather prepossessing appearance, who arrived a short time since as an emigrant, was proceeding towards the Flag-staff enjoying the serenity of the morning in the company of a tall moustached being of the male gender.  Arm in arm the parties progressed along the streets now and then exchanging sundry symptoms of mutual affection.  Unfortunately however for the equanimity of all parties concerned, the scene was destined soon to be interrupted.  There was seen to advance from a contrary direction a two legged animal, one of that species expressively denominated “a man” but what kind of one our readers will soon learn.  A creature about four feet nothing, whose body was any thing but resembling that of our Melbourne Falstaff, whose frontispiece was a conglomeration of parts, more appropriate to the frame of larger beings.  With rapid but not extensive strides the little man sidled along, till a walk was changed to a run.  Fire flashed from his eyes and fury from his mouth, on a near approach to the loving couple, his feelings found vent in the following expressive words, “What! is it to be a witness of this, that I have come to Australia, to see my wife the leman of a false and ignorant puppy, oh! would that I was in England, I would have justice, but here these things are fashionable,  and I am to be a miserable being for the rest of my existence; oh! villian I will be revenged.”  A storm of words ensued, rapid as the gushing torrent, abuse fell from one party, and threats of vengeance from another, which at length was ended by the man wot wore the moustachios saying, “what! is it a diminutive creature like you that dares insult me in the street and endeavour to force from my society a lady; begone!”  Actions followed fast upon the words, the little man was seized, raised aloft, and hurled with impetuosity into one of those clean spots with which Melbourne abounds.  During the scene, the lady gave vent to her feelings in tears, but on the completion of the above mentioned feat of bravery, she seized the arm of her chere amie and hurried him affectionately from the spot, leaving her husband bruised, and injured both in body and mind, to console himself as he best might.

A couple of observations about this little vignette:

1. Although there are often descriptions of street scenes in the newspapers, there are very few describing women.  Where a woman appears at all, it is often a 2 or 3 line description of some accident and misadventure befalling her. In fact, this is the only lengthy article of its type that I have found,  where there is mention of public affection between a man and a woman, and where she seems to have some (albeit limited) agency in the episode.

2. It takes place in King Street, near Flagstaff Hill.  In the early 1840s, the centre of Melbourne was located more to the west than it is today, in the square roughly bounded by King, Lonsdale, Elizabeth and Flinders Lane, with a concentration around Market Steet and Collins Street.  By walking up King Street to the Flagstaff Hill, they were walking out of the city up to its highest point- the Flagstaff- where flags were displayed showing the ships that had come into harbour.

As Garryowen says, Flagstaff Hill

“was the pleasantest outside place in Melbourne for a Sunday or week-day evening stroll.  The reported incoming of an English ship would draw crowds there, and they stared with anxious, wistful gaze as the ship beat up the harbour, yearning for the home letters, of which she might be the bearer, of good or evil news, the harbinger. (p. 570)  … It was “where all the Melbourne ‘world and his wife’ used to take their outings on Sundays and holidays, and on every other day when they had the time or inclination to inhale the fresh country air (p. 9)

3. There’s moral judgements at work here.  Moustaches were viewed with some suspicion- certainly Judge Willis castigated the “dandified solicitor” Edward Sewell for wearing a moustache in his courtroom.  The public displays of affection would be frowned upon by respectable readers, and the description of the woman as “prepossessing” is ambiguous.  The language also slips between “female” and “lady”, suggesting uncertainty about her social status.

4. The article as a whole reflects the anxiety that Port Phillip inhabitants felt about emigrants.  While rejoicing in the fact that Port Phillip was not a convict settlement, the inhabitants – or at least the Port Phillip Herald- remonstrated when too many emigrant ships arrived at one time, particularly when their passengers embarked into an economic situation of unemployment and insolvency.  There were criticisms of the emigrants who hung around the emigrant tents for too long, disdainful of wages that they felt were too low- the 1840s version of “dole bludger”.  In particular, there was anxiety over unaccompanied female emigrants.  In general emigrants were encouraged to go ‘up country’ as soon as possible to work as farm labourers or domestic servants.  At the same time, though, the growth of the economy depended on the influx of new settlers and their demands for housing and consumer goods.  Come to think of it,  I think I hear echoes of the debate about Melbourne’s growth today…..

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